Japanese Comfort Food To Go at Yama Cafe
One Sunday morning last fall, in the before-times, our daughter and her husband invited the whole family to join them for an authentic Japanese breakfast on east Hastings Street. When Amy and I visited Japan back in 2018, one of the highlights of the trip was the breakfasts, with their unusual (to North Americans) mix of savoury flavours and textures. Having never heard of being able to get a Japanese breakfast outside of Japan, we jumped at the chance and soon found ourselves in a cozy little restaurant, Yama Cafe, feeling like we had just stepped in out of the cold in a little Japanese village.
The first thing that caught my eye was the baby strapped to the chest of the man leaning over the stove in the small kitchen. The second was the glass case on the cash counter stacked full of delectable little bite-sized treats. I made a mental note to save space. The six of us all ordered the breakfast, with most of us opting for the sake (salmon), but a several choosing the saba (mackerel). Delicious cups of tea kept us warm until the main attraction showed up: rice, miso soup, a wonderful array of pickles (my favourite), an egg and perfectly-cooked fish. By the time we were done breakfast, everyone was happy. Hisami, here on a working holiday visa, gave it two thumbs up.
We have been back several times since for the breakfast, although they also serve lunch. We appreciate the relaxed, hometown feel of the cafe and the homespun, loving approach to the meals.
On our way out we generally pick up a bag or two of their delicious tea, whether is genmaicha, sencha or houjicha, along with a to-go box of treats.
Like many businesses during the pandemic, Yama Cafe is adapting to a different way of doing things, offering a takeout version of their menu. The last time I visited was to pick up two face masks that I had pre-ordered, along with a box of moffins. The masks are made by Japanese Fabric Creations SHINO, with part of the proceeds going to BC Children’s Hospital.
For information on Yama Cafe visit their Instagram page
2007 East Hastings
Temporary hours: Thursday to Monday, 10am to 3pm
Breakfast until 11am, lunch all day
Closed Tuesday, Wednesdays and holidays
Bulletin Interview: Mitsuhiro and Hiroe Yamamura
Did the two of you meet in Japan, or did you meet here in Vancouver?
We met in Vancouver at Aki Japanese Restaurant where we were both working.
Tell me a little about your lives in Japan – where did you live before you came to Canada? And what did you do there?
Mitsuhiro I’m from Chiba prefecture, and went to a culinary school in Tokyo.
Hiroe I lived in Shizuoka Prefecture, and worked there as a nurse for four years.
Why did you choose to come to Canada?
Mitsuhiro I met chefs from around the world at the culinary school but i couldn’t communicate with them in English, which motivated me to go abroad. I also wanted to snowboard in Canada!
Hiroe I came to Canada on a working holiday visa in 2012. Initially I wanted to go to the UK to learn English, but I never won the lottery for a UK working holiday visa.
Mitsuhiro, you are the main cook at the café, I believe. Where did you learn to cook, and where have you worked (what kind of experience do you have)?
Mitsuhiro I learned to cook for a year at a culinary school in Tokyo, then worked there for another seven years as a teaching assistant.
Hiroe, do you cook as well? What is your main job at the café?
Hiroe I don’t cook, but I take care of a lot of other things in the cafe. I help bake, I handle social media accounts where I do all the promotion, and communicate with customers. I work as a barista, and cashier as well.
I believe there was a restaurant called Basho here before. How did you come to open Yama Cafe?
When I heard that the Basho Cafe owners were looking to sell their business, I went in to speak to them as I was very interested in running my own business, and the timing was just perfect.
Your cafe has such a cosy feel, and your two boys, Ruka & Towa, add a lot to the atmosphere. It feels a neighbourhood kind of place.
We have a lot of customers come in with their kids too, which works out very well with our atmosphere. People seem to know and understand that we’re a family-owned business.
I think it’s pretty unusual for Japanese restaurants to serve breakfast in Canada. How do your non-Japanese customers enjoy the breakfasts, which are very unusual if you’re never had them?
We wanted to serve breakfast to attract more customers in the morning when our turnout was a little lower. We went for traditional Japanese-style breakfast because it generally can’t be found elsewhere in Vancouver, and to further promote Japanese food culture. A lot of customers loved it as a result. Even for those who may not be familiar, I think the Japanese-style presentation with many small dishes appeals to them a lot, and of course the grilled fish.
Describe your menu to someone who has never been there. What are some of the favourites with your customers?
We would describe it to them as cozy Japanese cafe food. Our most popular dishes would probably be the tuna tataki lunch set (tuna bowl as the main, +$4 for soup, two veggie sides, one mochi muffin), the mochi muffins (mochi-textured mini muffins), matcha latte and strawberry shortcake. A lot of customers like to come for the whole experience, where they come in for the lunch set, then get the cake and matcha latte for dessert, and finally take some mochi muffins home for takeout.
Our daughter was excited to introduce us to your “moffins.” They’re so good! Are they an invention of yours? Maybe you can describe them to our readers?
The idea of a mochi muffin comes from our predecessor at Basho Cafe, but we made our own version of the recipe. We use mochi flour to get the texture of squishy mochi (Japanese rice cake). The moffins are gluten free and vegan, another popular factor with customers. It comes in various flavors including matcha, black sesame, earl grey, chocolate, houjicha (roasted green tea), plain, red bean, miso, and espresso.
I’m sure the COVID-19 restrictions have been very difficult for you – are you getting support from the local community?
Yes, we’ve thankfully received an enormous amount of support from the local community! No words can describe how happy we are. We hope to be able to give back to the community once things are settled down.
What are your plans once the restrictions are lifted?
We’ve slowly started omakase course dinner reservations (which is now of course on hold amid the pandemic), but we hope to grow this portion of the business, so we can introduce more aspects of Japanese cuisine through traditional course menus, outside of the standard norm of sushi, tempura, teriyaki, ramen, etc.
Are there some recipes you can share with us? Something simple that our readers can make at home while we wait for life to get back to some kind of normal?
Make your own miso soup with homemade Japanese vegetarian broth! And moffins!
Vegetarian Miso Soup
water 1L, konbu seaweed 10g, dried shiitake 20g
1. Soak shiitake and konbu seaweed in the water overnight
2. bring to a boil the next morning and skim off the scum once it comes to a boil. (When putting the broth on heat, remove the konbu seaweed once the water temperature hits 80 degrees Celsius. If the seaweed is left in for too long, the broth will becomes too thick)
Add and dissolve desired amount of miso into the broth
(makes around 12 moffins)
Matcha powder: 12g
Mochi flour: 75g
Corn starch: 30g
Baking powder: 1/2 teaspoon
Golden yellow sugar: 40g
Cane sugar: 22g (We think the sugar could be replaced with regular sugar, but we’ve never tried alternatives so I can’t say for sure)
Soy milk: 200g
Hot water: 20g
1. Measure all the liquids together
2. Measure all the flour, powders, and sugar together
3. Gradually mix the liquid mixture into the powders so the mixture becomes nice and smooth
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit
5. Spray oil on a mini muffin pan, pour mixture in
6. Bake for approximately 20 minutes. Keep an eye out so it doesn’t burn. (We’ve never tested this recipe in a home kitchen so it’s better to watch out for the bake time to make sure it’s not under or over baked)